CarTalk.com Blogs Car Info Our Show Deals Mechanics Files Vehicle Donation

Electric cars in early 1900s

Has anyone seen the Disney classic, “Follow Me Boys!”?



Its a 1966 movie about a single guy who quits a band to settle down in a small town. He spends the rest of his life as Scoutmaster to a bunch of unruly boys in the town.



So what’s this got to do with cars? Early in the movie, a little old lady leaves the local bank in a car that looks a bit like a Model T, but the Fred MacMurray character mentions its an electric and that he hadn’t seen one in years (the movie was set in the mid-30s).



Does anyone know who made electric cars in the early 1900s? What kind of batteries did they use and how far could they go between charges? Why did they stop making them?



And is there anything we learned about electric cars back then that could be useful today?

I believe there were several makes.  Check out this list.  

http://www.didik.com/ev_hist.htm

Very interesting – thanx!

Jay Leno has a 100 year old Baker electic in his vast car collection.
http://www.popularmechanics.com/automotive/jay_leno_garage/4215940.html

Wikipedia has a good history: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_car

Electric cars were popular around the turn of the century and a little later mostly because early internal combustion engine cars were such a pain to drive. They had all sorts of variations on clutches, advance and mixture controls one had to contend with, whereas the old electrics drove pretty much like a golf cart with one pedal that made you go faster and another (or a lever) that made you slow down. Not to mention the whole hassle of crank-starting.

But as the ICE got better, it ended up with a clear edge in power, range and payload capacity and eventually electric cars went away. These are pretty much the same reasons why electric cars haven’t been adopted today. Very recently battery technology is getting a little better, but overall there haven’t really been that many advances in electric technology since then. I remember reading somewhere that Jay Leno was pointing out that the GM EV1 built in the 1990’s only had an extra 10 mph top speed and an extra 40 or 50 miles of range over his 100-year old Baker.

Why did they stop making them?

When the car industry was in its infancy, gas engines were hard to operate, didn’t always start, were noisy and smoky, and gas stations were not on every corner. Suburbs were unheard of and most driving was within the city so the range disadvantage was a moot point.

Gas cars evolved into reliable easy to operate vehicles that started with the push of a button and this is what did in the electrics.

That looks a lot like the car in the movie; unfortunately, the MacMurray character doesn’t identify the make, he just calls it an electric.

The early electrics used flooded cell lead-acid batteries, had a range of 10 or 15 miles and a top speed of 20 mph. They had no heaters, defrosters or air conditioners. They were equipped with a rudimentary low-wattage lighting system.

There were several electrics, the first that comes to mind is the Detroit. Since gas engines were difficult to start sometimes, smelly, etc., the electrics were marketed to women so they could enjoy the pleasures of motoring without the dangerous kickback of crank starters.

The electric car had a brief revival back in the 1970’s after the contrived oil shortage. Two cars that were produced during this period were the ElCar and the Citicar. According to Consumer Reports, the Citicar was the better of the two as I remember. The Citicar had an optional propane heater. I think it was unvented, so the windows had a tendency to fog up on the inside.

As others have said, the cars were popular in the early to mid 1900’s. I do remember the movie “Follow Me Boys!” and remember the scene with the elderly lady leaving the bank in her electric car. If you read Donald Duck comic books, Grandma Duck also drove an electric car. Donald Duck had a more modern roadster that was gasoline powered–his license plate was 313.

An excellent link. And Jay Leno is a legit car guy, a real wrencher, who probably knows more about the history of automotive techknowlegy than anyone else alive. His knowledge is vast, his insight incomparable.

I know of nobody else that has all the pathways to true knowledge…he owns them, restores them, fixes them, understands them inside-out, and actually knows what it’s like to drive them. All of them. The good ones, the bad ones, the ugly ones.